Minor 7th March/April 2002: Steve Howe, Rachael Davis, David Cullen & Michael Manring, Jemo, J.P. Jones, Andy Collins
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Reviewing the best in guitar CDs, from jazz to folk to rock to new age, emphasizing acoustic and independent or obscure releases

March/April, 2002

Steve Howe, "Natural Timbre", Spitfire SPT 15208-2, 2001

Since 1971, when he made his recording debut on The Yes Album, Steve Howe has enjoyed a prominent musical career. Many Yes tunes are staples of classic rock radio, and while most listeners are well acquainted with Howe's electrified "progressive rock" playing as a result, it was clear from the outset that Howe had a unique vision for the palette of sounds offered by the guitar and its cousins. Beginning with his ragtime-y guitar piece "The Clap" on his Yes debut, Howe consistently offered up acoustic guitar offerings on subsequent Yes albums and solo projects. As a contrast to the complex, lengthy, orchestral and often classical sounding arrangements to be found on the typical Yes album, his solo acoustic pieces help to break the pace a bit and offer the listener some refuge and release. Until now, fans of Howe's solo and acoustic guitar work have had to content themselves with these occasional offerings spread across a multitude of individual and Yes-related projects. On Natural Timbre, Howe's 12th solo project, 18 acoustic performances (six of which are for solo guitar) are collected in one place and neatly framed in the context of Howe's mouth-watering collection of vintage guitars, providing the listener with a range of satisfying listening experiences. Apparently, Howe can play anything with strings and does so, multitracking himself on ensemble pieces to combine the use of Dobro, mandolin, mandocello, mandola, koto, banjo, Hawaiian guitar, 12-string guitar, acoustic bass, and autoharp. Some tunes have his son Dylan contributing percussion, and others feature violin, recorder, piano and glockenspiel. Among the classical guitar pieces offered are the 2nd movement ("Winter") from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, transcribed from the original violin score to mandolin and 12-string, and John Dowland's 17th century lute piece "The Little Galliard". Hearing Howe's fingerpicking workout on his "Intersection Blues" and "In the Course of the Day" are reminiscent of his Chet Atkins-like fingerpicking on "The Clap", while "Dream River" offers Howe in a mellow jazzy duet with himself. "Curls and Swirls" finds Howe recreating the sound of a 1920s mandolin orchestra playing Gibson instruments (known for the curls and swirls on their headstocks, hence the title). "Solar Winds" finds him in a flamenco-inspired setting, "Provence" suggests a happy go lucky walk on a beautiful day, while the lead (and, at 6:14 the longest) cut "Distant Seas" has a new age sound in the best sense of the term. Howe chose to close out the album with acoustic treatments of three Yes songs, the most successful of which is "Your Move", bringing the project full circle to the first Yes album. This is a great Sunday morning album. Existing fans will appreciate having this acoustic collection by Howe, and its variety of styles and settings offers new listeners an introduction to the breadth and depth of this accomplished musician.
©Patrick Grant

Steve Howe's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Steve Howe's Lost For Words (mp3 download)

Rachael Davis, "Minor League Deities", Aunt Farm Records, 2001

With the opening tune of her debut CD, Rachael Davis establishes that she can swing. The lyrics introduce Davis' characteristic self-deprecating humor and the resiliency of the personae who inhabit her confessional world. Perhaps a one time rescuer has flown away with her rainbow but "who needs that stuff" when "love's got a lot of red tape", anyway? Frank Youngman's spare trumpet lines transport us to a smoky jazz café. The mysterious title, "Cocktail Wieners", reveals that this song, though tasty, is just one of many appetizers in the rich banquet of Minor League Deities. "Better Than Me", moves from combo to solo banjo by Davis who also demonstrates her vocal range, reminding us of Shawn Colvin as much as she channeled Rickie Lee Jones before. "Feste's Theme"--evoking Shakespeare's astute fool--centers on a startling image, a man on the way down with the wisdom to advise a woman taking love's leap, expecting to fly. By the fifth cut, the waltz "Dancin' Shoes", Davis has established her mastery of the wistful vocal and the bittersweet turn of phrase. But there's more. In "Lucinda" Davis is a bluesy belter, who plays a pretty mean slide guitar. "Still an Angel", a powerful acapella gospel duet with Davis' minor deity Claudia Schmidt, portrays a lover discovering "Maybe I'm still an angel, 'Cause I will never be your ghost." Brett Hartenbach's clean finger picking propels the tuneful "Eighth Lit Window." The "Only Stranger" of the penultimate cut is a dreamer who "keep(s) disappearing" but gathers strength by keeping "the faces on my mind / Of everyone who holds me on their shoulders." Maybe she'll "be back this way sometime..." In plaintive response, the final tune, "January," simply keeps asking "When will you be back?" We don't have to ask that question about Rachael Davis, because, if this CD is any indication, she has just arrived.
© David Kleiner

Rachael Davis' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Rachael Davis' Eighth Lit Window (RealAudio)

David Cullen and Michael Manring, "Equilibré", Solid Air SACD 2026, 2001

It's a rare pleasure to hear music in which chords, rhythm and melody fall into place so carefreely that to render any technical analysis is superfluous because the music simply and completely ensnares the spirit. That's not to say that the playing is not complex on Equilibré. It's just that via Cullen and Manring's sleight of hand-and-fret, the difficult becomes suddenly inconspicuous. David Cullen alchemizes an engaging guitar style that synthesizes together classical, jazz and world music befitting the best of each of his influences, from mentors and teachers Sharon Isbin, Manuel Barrueco, John Ambercrobie and Ralph Towner. His compositional style breathes hints of Towner: Cullen's "Turbograss" borrows on the bouncy Latin staccato bop of Towner numbers "Beppo" and "Guitarra Picante". Michael Manring knows how to make these sometimes cerebral tunes sound downright fun, interjecting a fusion edge with searing cascades of fretless bass licks á la Stanley Jordan. About half of the compositions are Manring's, sometimes sinuous and funky statements like "Gizmo" and "Homestyle" which encourage Cullen to capably reach into territory where his resumé gives no attestation of his skill. But it's on the almost-familiar tracks like "Shuffle In", "Canto" and "A Better Place" that Cullen's compositional genius finds true spontaneous expression with his innate feel for those chord resolutions and rhythms which surprise and please.
©Alan Fark

David Cullen's Website Michael Manring's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Turbograss (mp3 download)

Various Artists, "Enough Talk", Rhythmicon Records 002, 2001

It's a good time to be an acoustic musician. When you're not making your own records, you can pitch in to others' efforts to explore the unplugged sound. "Enough Talk" is the brainchild of Paul Abbott, a San Diego-based guitarist and producer who wanted to showcase some of his town's talented musicians without their voices. The result is an eclectic mix of styles from players who have been developing their chops for years, and who can hold their own with the plethora of acoustic players dotting the landscape. I was drawn into the CD by the second track, a lovely 2-guitar overdub by Dave Howard, "Midnight, Wednesday", a simple yet beautifully haunting melody, cascading from phrase to phrase. "Safety Glass" by Scott Ireland taps its way into a nice contrapuntal rhythm. Jim Earp's "Sensitive Cargo" goes upbeat with some percussion, while Larry Mitchell's orchestrated "Purple Rose" displays his speed up and down the fingerboard. C.J. Hutchins wails with righteous tone from his Martin D28S on "West Side", a slide and Travis-style bluesy piece. John Katchur presents a strong sense of melody with "The Song I Wrote For You", also featuring 2 guitar tracks. Dani Carroll - the only woman appearing on the CD - finishes things up solo on her Breedlove with "Nautilus", a reflective wisp of a tune slowly carrying the listener along. Several others complete the 11 tracks. All in all, Enough Talk is pleasant, if not spectacular, listening.
©Kirk Albrecht

Rhythmicon Record's Website Buy it at Guitar Nine Records

Jemo, "Jemo", JSD 001, 2001

Jemo is multi-instrumentalist Jeff Dantowitz, and his new self-titled debut proves that acoustic guitars can play a prominent role in alternative rock. Though each selection is firmly rooted in a minor key, Jemo is able to maintain the listener's attention through sheer emotion and lyrics that are simultaneously personal and universal. On the opening cut "Over," Jemo's ascending sustained chord pattern provides the perfect foil for his deep baritone voice, which evokes the phrasing and timbre of Eddie Vedder. Whether soft finger-picking as in "Hamsterboy" or rendering ballads through a sleepy legato haze, as in "Antiseptic," Jemo's distinct melodies are reflected in both his dexterous guitar playing and his animated singing, a rare feat unless you're the late great Jeff Buckley or David Gray. The double-time drum pattern provides a cool contrast to the half-time arpeggios in "Innocent Liar," and "Grace" borders on Goth mayhem. A commercial breakthrough is only a major chord away. Stay tuned to Jemo.
©Tom Semioli

Jemo's Website Buy it by e-mailing Jemo

J.P. Jones, "Salvation Street", Vision Company Records VCR 1001, 2001

On his seventh CD, JP Jones wages a 70 minute battle with his inner Bob, emerging proud, if not victorious. He titles a song "You Belong To Me," tells us "everyday I write a little more of my masterpiece," uses the phrase "Blowin' in the wind," and name checks Dylan. Picking like Mississippi John Hurt, Jones confesses, in "Po Man," to having stolen his riffs from "the records in the radio" and his style "from the guy who stole the show." But as the song good naturedly notes, all of us "go around in a sack of borrowed bones." Everything is stolen from somewhere. Here, Jones faces the difficulties he's had with the music business and produces-largely from sweat equity--a poetic, honest, and spiritual record that rocks. Completed last August--but including material from 1975 to the present-and recorded largely at home, Jones' faces his adversary with familiar weapons: gruff voice; half spoken delivery; dense, literate lyrics; insistent rhymes. He also plays harp, guitar, keyboard, and a variety of percussion backed by an excellent band. "Salvation Street," somewhere on the upbeat side of Desolation Row, finds speaker and companion among those "transfixed and amazed" at a glimpse of salvation. The truth they learn "is... gentle and raw. / Everybody still tries. / Everybody still dies. / That ain't the rules it's the law." The hum-able melody is driven by Lloyd Salisbury's dramatic piano, a memorable musical hook supplied by Michael Barrette's electric guitar arpeggios, and swelling voices that join in the run up to the refrain. "Long Blue Train," an eight minute epic, returns to its title with ever increasing ferocity and Les Sampou's electronically enhanced vocals. "That's Right" shows a softer side in a light hearted shuffle. Vinnie Pasternak's soaring viola in "Ordinary Day" recalls It's a Beautiful Day. "Almost Satisfied" is an eight minute autobiography ala "My Back Pages." "Back It Up" is a real rocker with a terrific chorus, a wall of voices, and great organ sounds. "Now It's Up to You" dreams of an in-person meeting with Dylan after which Jones declares, "I used to be a poet, now I just say what I mean." In the final cut, "What Called Me To This" Jones asks why he has endured the struggle for so long. The answer is Salvation Street, one brave and excellent album.
© David Kleiner

J.P. Jones' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Salvation Street (RealAudio)

Andy Collins, "Barron Delta Blue", 1999

Life in tropical Australia must be exotic, sensual and remote, pure and unsullied, but also a bit rough-and-tumble. This northern region of the land down under is ably painted by singer/songwriter Andy Collins, who knows of what he sings. Collins lived in this Australian Margaritaville that he writes about in such songs as "I Found Love," "Round the Bend," "Gulf Road," and "Swinging in the Trees." It's a veritable travelogue of observation and emotion. The resulting collection is a fairly tasty gumbo of blues, swing, R&B, reggae torch jazz, ballad, Irish, lounge lizard, and samba from the Australian troubadour. With a voice as smooth as an ocean breeze, Collins slips into different rhythms like a tropical gust. If there's a genre of music he omits, it's probably not because he can't master it. He seems determined to please, and works hard to entertain. He spins a nice yarn and can relate a stellar tale. One drawback is he spreads himself so thin that whatever sincerity once existed seems long gone. On the other hand, with his Big Band sound, professional backup singers, and pristine production, Collins seems comfortable to just let it fly. But a poppy, peppy "Sixteen Tons" is just a bit over the top. This 11-track collection won several Australian awards for album of the year. The best track may be the acoustic blues of "Long Lonesome Road," which was runner-up song of the year for 2000 in the Queensland Blues Excellence Awards. Collins reaches a big deeper in this track, about which he says: Written about a girl who broke my heart. This is why I went North. I was devastated at the time, but in retrospect I am so glad she did!"
©Fred Kraus

Andy Collins' Website Buy it here
Listen at mp3.com

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